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What it’s like to work with ADHD

Willingham's Emmy Award is on display near her desk.
Brook Joyner/CNN
Willingham's Emmy Award is on display near her desk.

Text by AJ Willingham and photos by Brook Joyner, CNN

(CNN) — Editor’s Note: AJ Willingham is senior culture writer for CNN.

“When you move again, you are going to go downstairs, and you are going to collect the clean clothes from the dryer.”

This is what I tell myself as I sit at my desk and stare out the window, paralyzed by the mounting weight of this simple task. It’s the end of the workday, and my 3:30 p.m. Adderall is coursing through my veins like blue lightning.

If I don’t try to move now, I could find myself staring vacantly at a computer screen for the next two hours. I don’t want that. I want to go downstairs and gather the laundry that’s sitting in the dryer, because laundry is one of those things that I, a functional person, should be able to do with basic fluency.

“And, while you’re there,” my brain adds, “you can get a trash bag.”

A trash bag, to bring to my home office where I work as a senior culture writer for CNN when I’m not at CNN’s Atlanta offices. I have an Emmy on one side of my desk, and on the other, a list of tasks that looks like it was written for a middle schooler: “Remember to check your email! You have a meeting at 1 p.m.!” (That second one is in huge letters, circled and underlined several times, like a silent scream.)

I’m proud of the career I’ve built over 15 years at CNN. I’ve written about taxidermy and cosplay, nonlethal police munitions and “rapture anxiety.” My work has won an Emmy, a National Association of Black Journalists Award and some Webbys, and gotten to explore innumerable fascinating facets of humanity. I used to think I had done it all in spite of my ADHD, which was officially diagnosed eight years ago. But what if, laundry notwithstanding, some of my success is because of it?

Throughout my career, I’ve had the honor of speaking to several college journalism classes. Sometimes I mention my lifelong struggle with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, but I feel like it’s always a risk. Journalism is a discipline of details, a dance of deadlines. Admitting there’s something in my brain that makes those things difficult feels like calling my professional fitness into question.

But journalism is also an exercise in truth, isn’t it? While it would look more glamorous chattering in a newsroom or splashed across a web page, sometimes the truth is lying dormant in the dryer, waiting to be put away. Sometimes it’s hiding in a messy office between artifacts of a satisfying career and a mound of unfiled paperwork.

Cleaning the office is another task I wanted to accomplish today, or maybe have been wanting to accomplish for a week. It starts with the trash bag, which is downstairs, in the laundry room. One of the sad ironies for people who have ADHD is that we crave the order we can’t seem to create. Until the office is clean, I will always be a little distracted, surrounded by another task waiting to be done.

Unfortunately, with an errant thought, I have created a mega task, because remembering to retrieve two things from one location requires intense mental calculus that I, a person who can talk at length about at least a dozen irrelevant special interests, cannot access. (“It’s not hard!” chirps the blue rush of amphetamines, which are swirling around my brain but not quite reaching it yet.)

I won’t know until I start moving, which I haven’t. I stopped to write this all down. (That is a great writing tip for people with ADHD: Wait until you’re supposed to be doing something else, and the words will flow.)

READ MORE: If you have ADHD, here’s how to manage working from home

Mindfulness is another skill I rely upon so now I’m loosening my jaw, flicking glances at the green leaves outside in an attempt to calm my mind and return it to the task at hand, which is not collecting laundry or getting a trash bag but preparing to do those things. A common tip for people with ADHD is to break down a task into manageable bits: Stand up. Go downstairs. Open the dryer. Put the laundry in the laundry basket.

Oh, you forgot the laundry basket.

But first, step one: Think about the task. Then think about breaking it down (which is another task). Then recall you forgot a step in this imagined set of actions. Thank God you thought about it beforehand, or you would be in the laundry room right now without the laundry basket, looking stupid.

When asked about my experiences, I often describe ADHD as an ever-present animal. You can’t cage it or tame it into submission. You learn to live in kind cohabitation so you can do what you need to do, whether it’s crafting a personal essay on ADHD or putting away a load of laundry.

Sometimes, the former is easier than the latter. It’s certainly more important, which is why I’m writing this instead of shuffling downstairs repeating the phrase “Laundry and trash bag, laundry and trash bag” like a Druidic incantation.

If I were to start now, the whole laundry thing would take about five minutes, and I would be flabbergasted at how little effort it took, as if it were the first task I ever accomplished in my life and I now possess a secret never-before-considered solution, which is just doing it. Experts tell you to imagine how good it would feel to have the task accomplished. That approach is supposed to help start a task, but unfortunately it triggers another task: feeling guilty for not already accomplishing it in the time it took to inflate the simple act of laundry into a cosmic symbol for living. Feeling like maybe you’re not good enough for any of this, at all.

Just do it!

My parents, frustrated with all I could have done but didn’t as a child, had me write those words and hang them on my bedroom door. My mother cried once when I didn’t finish my homework in fourth grade. “Does she have a tumor?” she said to my father. “We should get her tested for a tumor.”

Turning to me in tears she asked, “Is it because you’re just not challenged?” I was smart, so I said yes. That wasn’t the real problem, but I didn’t have a name for the real problem. I wasn’t old or brave enough to tell her I had pleaded with myself more times than she ever could. That I was queasy with the premonition of a lifetime spent sensing other people’s disappointment.

It took years to get the right combination of support that helps me keep the beast asleep while I do my job. It’s a delicate balance of personal discipline, intentionality, open communication, prescription medicine and relentless, deranged positivity. The last ingredient seems so trite but is necessary for anyone struggling with a learning difference. I have learned that you have to be kind to yourself and embrace what you can do rather than wallow in guilt over what you think you can’t.

We often discuss the downsides of such differences instead of the very real strengths: An ADHD mind, agile and perpetually in motion, can make unexpected connections and present solutions no one else has considered. It is often brimming with compassion, creativity and curiosity. Editors who work with me can be frustrated when the guilt and anxiety I feel over fudging a deadline throws me off course. At the same time, they appreciate that I can easily adjust to feedback and new ideas with little elaboration.

READ MORE: Signs of ADHD can be different in girls

The stigma around ADHD and other learning differences is starting to crack as we discover more about what makes such brains tick. However, it’s still tough to talk about in high-demand professions such as journalism, where any divergence can feel like a liability for people like me.

After one talk I gave about working at CNN, a student hung back to tell me he was excited to hear someone in the business talk openly ADHD. I realized I should be talking openly about it, because, when properly managed, ADHD brings more to the story than you could imagine.

Now, instead of begging myself to “just do it,” I have a different note on my work laptop: “Do a good job.” That’s all I need most days. That, I can promise myself. I’ve written this story, so that’s one task off the list. When I finally do the laundry, I will do it so well.

It may not be today though.

I’m stuck with this brain for the rest of my life, so while I may do my best, sometimes, I’m trying to be happy with good. Journalism is about honesty, after all.

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